In this July 5, 2018, file photo, members of the Toronto Police Service excavate the back of a property in Toronto during an investigation in relation to alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur Image Credit: AP

The mercury in Toronto is beginning to drop. When I visit in mid-November, the first snows have fallen on Canada’s largest city. The biting wind, predominantly from the north and west, cuts into uncovered skin.

What snow isn’t removed turns quickly to ice, casting a frozen shroud over gardens and parks, fields and forests — a hard and mostly impenetrable blanket that will remain in place until the thaw of this spring. What lies beneath will remain a secret for now. And it is this deep and cold cover that presents Toronto Police with perhaps its greatest challenge in their search for human remains.

Under the flightpath of planes landing here at this city’s Pearson International Airport sits the Metro East Detention Centre, a low brown-bricked institution surrounded by white grounds, high fences and razor wire. There, in its maximum-security wing, under 24-hour watch sits 67-year-old Bruce McArthur, a landscape gardener, who police say is perhaps the city’s deadliest serial killer.

McArthur pleaded guilty to the charges on Tuesday. Detective David Dickinson, who spoke to media at the Ontario Superior Court, said the motive for the killing was not yet known. Dickinson said sentencing would take place on February 4 with victim-impact statements on the same day.

The Facebook images of McArthur show a kindly, round face with neat white hair and a beard. The images are at odds with the crimes for which he stands accused, and more like the images of those who know him as a gentle soul who worked during the pre-Christmas season as a Santa Claus at malls, where little children shyly whispered their Christmas wish lists into his ear.

His social media accounts are filled with cat videos, favourite recipes and pictures of his children and grandchildren along with anti-Trump content.

The man who grew up on a small farm in a forested and lake community about 100km northeast of the city waived his right to a preliminary hearing — a process whereby prosecutors lay out the evidence to stage a murder trial and one that many defendants use to enter a guilty plea depending on the weight of that evidence. Instead, McArthur opted to head straight to trial, seemingly determined to reduce the emotional impact of the evidence gathered against him.

Police and Crown prosecutors allege McArthur embarked on a deadly killing spree for almost a decade, targeting his victims, brutally killing them, then cutting up their bodies and dispersing them across this sprawling city, using his landscaping business as a cover, burying the grisly human remains in urns and other ornamental gardens now covered once more in the winter’s snow.

The details of the murders are straight from the pages of a Stephen King short story — The Lawnmower Man. In the 1975 story, the killer uses his work as an opportunity to commit sex crimes, murder and dispose of the bodies as the name of the story suggests. In the McArthur case, police allege he buried the dismembered victims in ornamental displays across the city.

Violent crime in Canada is low with Toronto below the national average at 1.47 homicides in 2017 compared to 1.68 per 100,000 population. That compares to 12.4 on average in the US the same year. All across Canada in 2016, for example there were 611 murders, and 627 in the state of Ohio alone then. The case is stretching Ontario’s forensics services to its limits. When there are murders, they tend to be gang-and-drug related, or the result of domestic violence. But that has changed.

At the end of January last year, Toronto police delivered ten 200-kilogramme frozen-solid fibreglass landscape displays to the Ontario Forensics Pathology Service. After letting them thaw, the province’s only full-time forensic pathologist began to process them. An X-ray revealed a foreign object, possibly a chink of ice. For the Detective-Sergeant who had dropped them off, Hank Idsinga, it was a tense waiting game. He had removed the planters from a swanky city home where McArthur had carried out landscaping work the previous spring and summer. By the time Idsinga and his team got to the lab, the planters were starting to stink. They watched the pathologist reveal a human head, torsos and limbs — seven separate sets of human remains.

Police issued a plea to anyone who might have used McArthur’s services, and deployed cadaver dogs to multiple locations across Toronto. They erected tents and used heaters to thaw the frozen ground. Forensic investigators combed over McArthur’s two-bedroom apartment for months, removing 1,800 pieces of evidence and photographing every square inch. They visited a junkyard east of the city, collected DNA and blood samples from an old Dodge car sold by McArthur for scrap.

Police had been tipped off to McArthur as a person of interest by one young man who described being knocked out by the landscaper during a violent sex act. McArthur was placed under 24-hour surveillance and was arrested after he entered his apartment accompanied by another young man. When they entered, the young man had been tied to a bed.

An eighth set of remains was found in a ravine behind his home, and now McArthur is charged with first-degree murder in the killings of Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Majeed Kayhan, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, Soroush Mahmudi, Dean Lisowick, Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman.

Most of the victims were of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, men who had drifted into the lifestyle and openness of Toronto’s gay district. The community is largely anonymous, where strangers come and go in a transient lifestyle without permanency or roots. For McArthur, police say, the district offered an opportunity to find lonely victims and kill them.

McArthur’s age, as well as his unthreatening appearance — round features and a broad, cheery smile — made him seem approachable to children shopping with their parents, as well as to gay men seeking a dark sexual encounter with someone they could trust.

After divorcing his wife, McArthur, who had been active on his church board in Oshawa, east of Toronto, became a regular in the city’s gay village. He trolled hook-up sites where the “silver fox” made his taste for submissive men clear — especially those who wanted to test the limits of their curiosity for dangerous sex.

McArthur had been brought to the attention of local police in 2002, when he was arrested for attacking a gay prostitute with a metal bar. He was sentenced in 2003 to two years’ probation and told to stay away from the gay village.

In 2010, reports started to come through of men going missing from the village. The first, Skandaraj Navaratnam, rests particularly heavily on the mind of Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention.

Both men are Sri Lankan, Tamil and gay. “I saw myself in Skanda,” Vijayanathan says. “He represents my greatest fear.”

That fear — one faced by immigrant and refugee men in an unfamiliar community — is nothing new. Just as gay men from across Canada flocked to Toronto in the 1970s to live free and open lives, a new generation of gay men from south Asia and the Middle East has been drawn to Canada in the last 20 years for the same reasons. The new arrivals may revel in Canada’s acceptance, but they are still vulnerable — suspicious of authority, reluctant to attract attention, perhaps too eager to fit in. And perhaps too trusting of a gentle-looking older man who appears harmless.

The McArthur case too has proven a strain on relations between the city’s gay community and the police. The community wants to know why the force hadn’t taken their fears of a serial killer stalking their streets more seriously. Some argued that police were too slow to warn the community of a possible serial killer, saying lives could have been saved.

To make matters worse, Toronto police appeared to put some blame on the gay community for the killings when Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders told The Globe and Mail newspaper that the force might have nabbed McArthur sooner had residents of the community been more forthcoming. “We knew that people were missing and we knew we didn’t have the right answers,” Saunders said. “But nobody was coming to us with anything.”

Now, however, with McArthur sitting in the Metro East Detention Centre, Toronto Police are continuing to look for other possible victims, and their task force into men missing from the gay community still seeks answers.

Maybe the thaw of this spring, when that icy cloak retreats again, will unearth some more secrets.

-With inputs from agencies

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.